The Theological, Political, and Personal Roots of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Zionism

January 25, 2019 | Shalom Goldman
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One of the most influential Protestant thinkers of 20th-century America, Reinhold Niebuhr also helped lay the theoretical foundations for the cold-war liberalism of the postwar decades. He was, moreover, a vocal supporter of Zionism since at least the 1930s, believing that Jews were entitled not just to rights as individuals, but as a nation. Indeed, even before coming to Zionism, Niebuhr had already broken from what was then accepted Christian thinking concerning the Jews. Shalom Goldman writes:

The seeds of Niebuhr’s philo-Semitism were planted in his childhood, . . . in the small midwestern town of Wright City, Missouri. There [his father, the German-born] Pastor Gustav Niebuhr of the German Evangelical Church began each day with readings in Hebrew and Greek from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. [Gustav] taught his five children the ancient languages and texts. . . .

In his Detroit congregation, in 1923, Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr preached about the necessity of increasing the numbers of Jews who join the Christian fold. . . . Yet Niebuhr would soon reconsider his position, influenced, he wrote, by his experience of the Detroit Jewish community’s commitment to “better the welfare of the poor, the unemployed, and those who suffered from racial discrimination.” . . . By 1926 Niebuhr had rejected completely the idea of a mission to Jews. As his biographer R.W. Fox noted, Niebuhr understood by this time that “Christians needed the leaven of pure Hebraism to counteract the Hellenism to which they were prone.” Niebuhr now argued forcefully that Christians had no business trying to convert Jews. . . .

In 1941 Niebuhr spoke at the annual convention of the B’nai B’rith organization. There he came out in favor of U.S. support for a Jewish state in Palestine. He repeated this call in a speech the following year to the leadership of the Reform movement, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. . . . In some matters Niebuhr [initially] aligned himself with the proposals of Brit Shalom, the group formed by Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Ernst Simon, [that] called for a binational state [in Palestine]. Yet while Niebuhr was attracted to the idea, he eventually deemed it “unrealistic.”

During the Suez Crisis [in the mid-1950s], Niebuhr’s was one of the few influential American Christian voices calling for unqualified support of Israel. As the Soviet Union supported Egypt with arms, Niebuhr felt that the United States should support Israel, for “the very life of the new nation of Israel is at stake.”

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